The Man Who Saved Time
A modern fairy tale

For Felicia

    Peter Ivan took a great pride in his efficiency. It was a trait
taught to him from a small age by his mother, Edna, who had grown up
during the dusty days of the Great Depression. One of her chores had
been to dust the family's Kansas farmhouse, but the plains topsoil
swirled everywhere on the high prairie winds because no crops would
grow to grip the dirt with their roots. Cleaning would have been an
endless all-day job if little Edna hadn't found faster ways to do
it. And she did. Before long, she was able to clean the entire
eight-room house in less than an hour. It was a talent she passed
down to her own son years later.
    "What, are you going to fritter your whole life away?" she'd ask
whenever she caught Peter sitting lazily, doing nothing. "Do
something productive! There are only so many hours in the day, you
    So Peter grew up with the belief that idle hands do the devil's
work, that time is money, that he who hesitates is lost. As a
result, Peter Ivan had very few friends, because Peter didn't
believe in leisure time, only in getting as much done as quickly as
possible. The fact that he was tall, lanky, balding by the age of
30, and generally unattractive didn't help. But none of those things
bothered him. He took his satisfaction from the fact that he was
always able to improve upon himself. If he was able to finish a
day's worth of work in half a day, the next week he'd manage to do
it in a third of a day. But because rest and relaxation held no
interest to him, Peter merely moved onto the next job as soon as the
last one was completed.
    One day, another man in the office where Peter worked was given
a very big project to do. It was far too large for one man to do
alone, and he knew he could never complete the project before the
deadline his boss had set for it.
    "What will I do?" he asked a fellow worker. "If I don't get this
job finished on time, I'll be fired, and how ever will a middle-aged
executive like myself again find management-level employment in this
current economic environment?"
    "Why don't you ask Peter Ivan," the fellow worker said. "He
always seems to have a fast solution to everything."
    So the man took his problem to Peter. Peter, who had a deep love
of computers because of their time-saving abilities, wrote a program
that finished the job in one-tenth the time a person could have done
it. The man was so impressed that he suggested Peter take to writing
programs full-time. Peter turned this over in his head and decided
it was a good idea. The next day, he quit his job, bought a
computer, and devoted his days to writing efficient, time-saving
    The years passed, and Peter Ivan became quite famous for the
software he created. Many of them won awards. Peter was now saving
time for not only himself, but also for the thousands of people who
bought his programs. But what no one but Peter knew was that he had
written a program a long time ago that would write other programs
for him. All he had to do was to tell it what he wanted, and the
computer did all the work. Therefore, the amount of time Peter Ivan
spent on each program could now be measured in negative numbers. By
his shrewd calculations, Peter worked exactly minus two days on each
    That was something else no one but Peter Ivan knew about: his
ledger. Peter's ledger was a huge old accountant's book, with a
splitting leather cover and yellow pages that made sharp crackling
noises when they were turned, in which he had written precise
calculations for all the time he had saved. He had done this every
day since he was a child. The book had belonged to his grandfather,
who had been an accountant for exactly one week before he realized
that he hated it. So only the first page of the huge book had been
written on when Peter found it in the family attic years later. He
tore that first page out, and the remaining pages eventually became
filled with columns of hours, minutes, and days, all totalled in the
lower right corner at the bottom of each page. Over the years, the
number in that "TOTAL" box had become quite large.
    Like even the laziest of people, Peter Ivan grew old. Although
he had become very famous, he had not become very rich. Most of the
money he earned was either given away or spent on things like nice
paintings to put in his living room. Peter Ivan was interested in
saving time, not money.
    One night, Peter was asleep in his large bed covered with silk
sheets when he was awakened by a cold breeze. He sat up and saw that
the glass double-doors on the other side of the room were wide open.
The lace curtains blew inward on the breeze. He wondered how the
doors could have become unlatched, but he was tired and didn't think
too long about it. Instead, he got out of bed and crossed the room
to close them. That done, he turned to go back to bed and saw a
figure emerge from the shadows of a corner and walk toward him.
Peter froze. As the figure moved into the moonlight coming through
the glass doors, Peter saw that it was a woman, dressed in a long
black dress and black hooded cloak. The dress had heavy pleats and
covered her milky white skin from her neck to the floor; it looked
like the dresses women wore to funerals in the late 19th century. As
she came closer, the woman brushed the hood back off her head with a
hand sprouting long, sharp ruby-red nails that looked unsettlingly
like claws. As the hood fell away, her hair spilled out, black like
her dress but shot through with white streaks. It tumbled over her
shoulders and back, and finally stopped at her waist.
    She looked at him with coal-black eyes and asked, "You are Peter
    When Peter answered "Yes," her blood-red lips turned back in a
blood-chilling smile that revealed long, sharp canine teeth. Peter
fought down fear. "Who are you?" he asked.
    "I am your angel of death, Peter."
    This did not surprise him. He had known for a long time that
someday Death--or in this case, Lady Death--would come for him, and
he had one final secret that he had prepared for this moment.
    "And what is your name?" he asked.
    "I have had many, and will have many more."
    "What is it now?"
    "If it's really that important. I suppose you have a right to
know whose hand takes your life. As I said, I have had many names,
but by favorite, above all, is Kali. Now, Mr Ivan, we have some
business to attend to. Please unbutton your shirt." She smiled
wickedly and held aloft a gleaming, razor-sharp nail.
    "No, Miss Kali," Peter said, "I have an offer to present to
    Kali's grin melted into a look of confusion as Peter walked past
her to his closet. He opened it and reached way in to the very back,
emerging with a shoebox taken from the farthest, darkest corner. The
box was small, and silver-grey like his hair. The cover was slightly
askew, as though what was inside was almost too large to fit. Kali
drifted over to see--(drifted, because she did not appear to bob up
and down as most people do when they walk, and because she made no
footstep sounds on the bare wooden floor). Peter raised the lid, and
Kali saw clearly what was inside, although there were no lights on
to illuminate it.
    She saw Peter Ivan's saved time. Every spare second, minute, and
hour, all neatly kept within the shoebox. Every scrap since the day
he had begun to keep the ledger many decades ago. The accumulation
was huge. Although several centuries' worth of time must have been
in there, they all fit within that single small box, for time, as
you well know, is easily compressed. Kali knew what it meant before
Peter even said it, and she made a disgusted sound in the back of
her throat.
    "As you can see, dear Kali," he said, "all my days are not yet
spent. I have many left to enjoy, and I plan to use them to their
fullest. So if you will, move on to the next person on your list,
and I shall return to my sleep."
    Kali's eyes momentarily flared red, and a corner of her lips
parted to reveal a shiny, needle-sharp tooth, as though she wished
to bury it in his neck. Then she turned abruptly and drifted
smoothly and silently toward the glass doors. They blew open
obediently before she reached them, but as she was about to pass
through, Kali turned to face Peter.
    "Your box of time won't last forever, you know," she said.
"Someday it will run out, and I will _know_ when it does, and the
moment that happens I will be back here to hold your heart in my
    "We shall see," Peter said, stooping to replace the shoebox in
its closet corner. "We shall see." But when he stood up again, Kali
was gone, the double doors shut once more.
    That was a long time ago, and Peter Ivan's shoebox hasn't run
out yet. Kali has not returned. Some people will try to tell you
that a person cannot live forever, but Peter Ivan is alive today.
With each day taken from the box, Peter creates more time. He is
confident that Lady Death won't pay him another visit. To him, his
shoebox full of days has always been a safety deposit box of sorts,
and now Peter Ivan literally lives off the interest.

-- © 1993, W.A. Seaver.